Stop and smell the blossoms, and maybe eat a few, says St. Lawrence County horticulturist
Sunday, May 25, 2014 - 8:36 am

By PAUL HETZLER

It’s well known that stopping to smell the flowers, both in the literal and figurative sense, can help reduce stress and lower blood pressure. What’s not as widely known is that stopping to eat certain flowers can also benefit your heart.

Due to the late spring this year, many plants are a bit behind where they usually are in their bloom schedule. Right now cherry trees are in bloom, although the flowers of our native black cherries, small grape-like clusters of tiny blossoms, are less showy than those of domestic cherry trees. Apples, both wild and cultivated, are in most cases replete with white flowers in spite of having spent loads of energy on last year's very heavy fruit crop.

A tree makes flower buds only in late summer of the previous year, and the amount generally reflects the condition of the tree at that time. Vegetative buds are also set the previous summer. However, if these are damaged by weather or insects in springtime, a tree can release dormant buds under its bark to make new leaves. This is why a late freeze that destroys tree buds may put an end to a season's fruit crop but it won't kill the trees.

Another wild tree, a cousin to apple, is flowering these days. Through the end of May, fencerows and pastures will be festooned with the brilliant white blossoms of hawthorn, a small tree in the rose family native to North America. There are many species of hawthorns, and they would be more popular if they didn’t wear long thorns sturdy enough to puncture tires. Hawthorn fruit, sometimes called thorn apples or haw apples, are good for making jelly—in fact I make some every fall—and at times were an important food source for pioneers. The wood is rot-resistant and exceptionally strong and hard.

But it’s the fragrant and attractive hawthorn flowers which have a rich history of medicinal use as cardiac tonic. Hawthorn flowers, along with its leaves, are often dried, powdered and made into capsules, or sometimes used for tea. While herbalists and other practitioners of traditional medicine are often doubted, they have in some cases been supported by science. Ginkgo and St. John’s Wort are two examples of folk-medicine vindicated by research.

While hawthorn hasn’t yet been endorsed by the American Medical Association, several studies have shown hawthorn does have beneficial cardiac effects. An article in the July 2002 issue of the Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing stated that hawthorn “…consistently demonstrates its ability to improve exercise tolerance and symptoms of mild to moderate heart failure.” However, the authors admit that “In order to properly use hawthorn in the treatment of heart failure, a large, controlled, multi-center trial…is needed.”

Given hawthorn’s abundance, if it is proven to be beneficial it could be practically free. (Which leads to the question of who exactly would fund such studies.)

If you can find the time, consider going for a walk this week to smell some hawthorn flowers. But if you’re going to consume more than a few, please check with your doctor first. And do watch those thorns.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County horticulture and natural resources educator.